The dark recess lurking at the heart of German democracy

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CLOWNS TO the left of us: jokers to the right - here we are, sunning ourselves in the inclusive politics of the new European centre. New Labour is a tent as ideologically capacious as the Millennium Dome and more certain of success. It offers radicals the balm of constitutional realignment and the death of their ancestral enemy, the House of Lords. Meanwhile, Conservatives can cross the old dividing line with ease, reassured by Tony Blair's soothing attentions to the fretful middle class and his robust acceptance of competitive markets.

The Big Middle is proving a popular export. I spent the weekend debating the Third Way at the invitation of a foundation of the Christian Socialists of Bavaria, a party not famed for its sympathy with the centre left. The arguments turned on whether Mr Blair was a Social Democrat or a closet Conservative. The New Labourites in attendance hotly denied that they had succumbed belatedly to the embrace of Maggie. A local politician replied by enumerating Mr Blair's key policies - workfare, toughness on crime, reluctance to raise income tax, restoring traditional learning methods to schools. "I'd vote for a package like that," he said, "And I'm a Bavarian. They don't come any more conservative than that."

Aping Blairite rhetoric helped secure Gerhard Schroder the German chancellorship, down to the neat five-point pledge card. Herr Schroder's aide-de-camp, Bodo Hombach, liaises incessantly with Peter Mandelson. The Third Way is echoed by Herr Hombach's theory of the "politics of the new centre". But if the political centre is so wide that we can all identify ourselves with it - from Manchester to Munich; from supporters of Oskar Lafontaine, who believes that German profit margins are too high, to supporters of Mr Blair, urging him to heed the wisdom of big businessmen as if they were Solomon's heirs - what is to become of those outside the centre?

While we are carping and brow-furrowing and warning Mr Hague not to arouse the nastier nationalist instincts with his Britomania, the defeated Christian Democrats, inspired by their Bavarian sister party, have not only thought the unthinkable but have started doing it, responding to the German government's proposal to allow ethnic minorities dual nationality by initiating a petition against it.

For the first time since the Turks were invited to Germany to do the dirty work of the Wirtschaftswunder, those who dislike their presence or want to keep them as second-class citizens no longer have to resort to the beer-hall milieu and manners of the far-right parties: they can simply sign a piece of paper. The centre right is thus legitimating popular distrust of a racial minority.

Even the most civilised democracies have their dark corners, and race is Germany's. There is one Turk in the German parliament - holders of public office need citizenship, which is extremely difficult to obtain. All this in a country that has one of the most modern-rights-obsessed constitutions in the world. You can demand to see which state bodies are holding a computer file on you. No university is allowed to keep a file on students. But when it comes to citizenship rights, the Federal Republic clings to the jus sanguinis of Wilhelminian yore, which puts blood and not birth or residency at the root of citizenship criteria.

The Greens, who initiated the new nationality bill, are a mixed blessing in Bonn - a political bull in that best-ordered of china shops. They bounced a still uncertain government into the precipitous announcement that Germany will stop using nuclear power, without bothering to consult the industry - or indeed France and Britain, who have long-standing contracts for disposing of the toxic by-products. In Joschka Fischer, they have produced an engaging but whimsical Foreign Minister who charmed everyone he met on his visit to London, only to go home and make Mr Blair's job in selling Britain the euro far harder by calling for a speedy push towards political union in Europe.

Part of me winces at this dilettantish radicalism which cares so little for the chaos it causes. The other part is glad that the Greens are there to say the unpopular things ignored by consensus. I wish we had a similarly challenging political force in the United Kingdom (and please don't write in if you are a Liberal Democrat; that really doesn't count).

It took the participation of the German Greens in government to make a demand that should have been made on behalf of a two-million-strong minority years ago. For years, I have heard sophisticated and humane diplomats argue that the Turks don't really want full nationality rights because "they live in ghettoes" and "they don't want to take full part in the life of society".

The CDU have gone one step further and stated that the "different lifestyle" of the minority makes them inherently un-German. It never seemed to occur to them that people who are not accorded the representation allowed to other citizens are inclined to shrug their shoulders and turn inwards.

Post-war Germany is famously prone to examining its own navel - except for the ethnically mixed bit of it. The political mainstream - both Christian and Social Democrat - has allowed a situation to arise in which many of the children and grand-children of the first generation of immigrants have lost interest in integrating. Teachers find themselves confronting secondary-school classes in which the teenagers speak German reluctantly or badly.

The advent of satellite television linking them to the land of their origins has diminished the power of popular culture to draw in immigrants. And the same pattern is beginning to repeat itself with refugees from the former Yugoslavia.

Polls put opposition to the absorption of the Turks into German citizenship at 53 per cent. Ask an inflammatory question and you get an inflammatory answer. Resistance to the citizenship law should never have been pursued in such a populist manner. Confident and mature democracies know which questions not to ask, which is why we do not have the death penalty. The price of indulging the popular taste is deemed to be too high. So it will prove with this debacle in Germany.

Already, moderate Christian Democrats are turning away from the leadership's decision. What do you do as a tolerant centre-right person when your party takes leave of its senses and starts playing with the fire of race? Do you resign in disgust (as many in the CDU have threatened to do) and let your colleagues play on the old, unchallenged fear that to absorb a minority is to dilute national identity? Or do you stay, and resist the sirens of electoral appeal?

For the first time, I understand a little better how dismayed moderate Conservatives must have been by the rise of Enoch Powell, and how necessary their voices were against him.